Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is getting known for rapid policy U-turns. Most notably, Labour’s flagship policy of spending £28 billion a year on green investment has been postponed to the middle of the next parliament. Rachel Reeves, shadow Chancellor, is prioritising fiscal rectitude, with an apparently deep-seated, if bizarre, fear that the markets might take her for the calamitous, economy-wrecking Liz Truss.

So, if Labour can backtrack on the heart of its green economic strategy, might Starmer U-turn on rejoining the EU’s single market? It would only be good for the UK’s badly ailing economy and public services.

But Starmer’s election tactics are much narrower than that. Labour are not quite sitting on their hands until the election falls into their laps, courtesy of the imploding, fissured Conservative party – and aided by the travails of the SNP. But Starmer’s focus remains on the once Tory and Brexit-backing voters in key English constituencies.

So, the ‘No’ to rejoining the EU, its single market and customs union will remain. And reinstating free movement of people between the UK and EU will continue to be held hostage to the endless tabloid, xenophobic, scare-mongering around migration.

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But, once in power, facing multiple economic and social challenges, will a Labour government really ignore the benefits that could be reaped back in the EU’s single market?

Perhaps Starmer and Reeves genuinely believe that they can create a dynamic, green, fairer, UK within existing, problematic EU-UK trading relations. But, as a report from the Resolution Foundation pointed out last month, it looks like EU manufacturers will increasingly disentangle UK suppliers from their high value-added supply chains, leaving UK production in a low-productivity, domestic-oriented mire. So, time is of the essence in tackling the mounting damage of Brexit before it’s too late.

The EU would, too, have to be open to letting its prodigal ex-member state back into its single market. This looks a lot easier than the politics of the UK rejoining the EU itself. Public opinion may now regret Brexit and lean towards rejoining. But the EU is no keener than Labour to reopen that option for many years and only when some semblance of genuine, sustained rationality has re-entered British politics.

Yet, from a Brussels perspective, rejoining the single market would look less problematic. After all, Norway, in the EU’s single market through its membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), has no vote, no real influence and no seat at the EU’s tables. The UK could not cause the sort of trouble in the EEA that it might if it were a member state again.

But even beginning to lay these steps out starts to outline the challenges and difficulties of such an approach. Is the UK really going to follow EU laws, old and new, bring free movement back, and make a financial contribution, without a say or vote – a huge democratic deficit? It seems implausible.

Future EU-UK relations look destined to remain marooned around technocratic tweaks to the existing Trade and Cooperation Agreement, with a review due in 2026. But positive tweaks are not going to rescue the UK from the harms of Brexit nor revive its influence in Europe. New thinking is needed.

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But the EU is facing more important challenges than its relations across the Channel with Brexit Britain. From climate change to the war in Ukraine, relations with China and the US, and the EU’s own migration neuralgias, the UK is far down the EU’s agenda.

The EU is also facing up to some critical rethinking of its future development. This sort of major rethink happened most notably back in the 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the accession processes of the countries of central and eastern Europe went in parallel with a succession of new EU treaties that brought in the Euro, increased majority voting, gave more powers to the European Parliament and a new President to the European Council, and opened up the border-free Schengen zone.

The current European and global context is much tougher now than in the 1990s. But a similar big picture strategic reflection process is under way, driven not least by the challenge of bringing Ukraine, Moldova, eventually Georgia, and the six western Balkans candidates into the EU. Reducing dependence on China and building a strong base in the EU for future green energy and green companies and sectors of the future are other key drivers.

The UK has, of course, no voice in any of this. But it doesn’t have to just settle for its place on the sidelines with a stuttering, inward-looking debate on the glory days of the EU’s single market.

One leading EU expert, Mujtaba Rahman, suggested recently that in Berlin there are hints of new thinking about ways to tie the UK and Turkey more effectively to the EU. What this could look like is unclear. But there have long been EU voices calling for a modernisation of the existing Turkey-EU customs union. And in the brief period, 20 years ago, when there was some positive energy behind Turkey’s EU membership bid, no-one was keen on making Turkey part of EU free movement.

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So, just perhaps, there could be some fresh approach to unpicking some of the barriers between the EU and UK. But the UK, under Starmer or any other leader, would need to reflect strategically and intelligently about where the EU is going in its own major rethink in our intensely challenging times.

Outside of the EU, the UK will never have the access, voice or power that it had before. But if the UK can re-engage in a serious, diplomatic manner and suggest ways that it could contribute to the EU’s strategic repositioning, perhaps some new relationship could evolve.

The risk is that even a sober UK Labour government, after the Brexit histrionics of the Tories, will look less like a European power and more like a nation of shopkeepers only after some marginal improvements to their limited trading opportunities.